The Pledge of Allegiance back in the news

There seems to be no battles that the public and the media enjoy more than symbolic ones that have little or no effect on the actual lives of people. Among these are battles over the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.

And that last issue is back in the spotlight now that US District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton in California has held that including the phrase in the pledge does indeed make the reciting of the pledge in schools unconstitutional. A similar judgment was arrived at in 2002 and that earlier decision was upheld by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Karlton said that he was bound by that precedent. That earlier case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which essentially punted by saying that the parent in that case (Michael Newdow who also acted as his own lawyer) did not have standing to file suit because he did not have legal custody of his daughter on whose behalf he was objecting to the phrase. Thus the Supreme Court avoided having to rule on the merits of the case.

This time around it was again Michael Newdow who filed the suit but on behalf of three other unnamed parents who presumably do have custody since Judge Karlton said that the unnamed parents in the new case had the standing to sue.

Opponents of removing the “under God” phrase have vowed to appeal the new ruling to the same 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court again upholds Karlton’s ruling, then we would have two conflicting appeals court rulings, since in August of just this year the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead a daily Pledge of Allegiance recitation, similar to the requirement in California. It seems that this issue is again likely to end up in the US Supreme Court.

While the courts may be divided on this issue, there is no doubt about where Congress stands. In their rush to be seen as being on what they perceive as the side of god and patriotism, the Senate has already condemned the new ruling and said in a non-binding resolution approved by unanimous consent that it approves the pledge as it stands and said “that the phrase “one nation under God” in the pledge reflects the religious faith central to the founding of the nation and that its recitation is “a fully constitutional expression of patriotism.”” After the 2002 appeals court decision, both House and Senate passed similar resolutions.

An interesting feature about this case is that the families on whose behalf Newdow filed his latest suit have chosen to be nameless. One assumes that this is because they fear a backlash in their communities and that they and their children might be the targets of hostile words and even actions.

This raises the question of why people get so angry over this kind of symbolic action. Why do people care so much that it generates this kind of fear? Why not simply let the case work its way through the courts and be done with it?

In general, I feel that saying things like the pledge, with or without the phrase “under God,” are only meaningful if done completely voluntarily and should not be part of organized rituals where people feel obliged to participate. Pledges to the flag, country, god, or whatever are pointless if they are done under explicit or implicit coercion. In fact, such forced assertions of allegiance or belief are likely to breed cynicism or become so routine that people just go through the motions.

But while I have definite preferences on each of the things I listed at the top (public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance) I really don’t care so much that I get all upset about them. If the Supreme Court rules that the phrase “under God” is constitutional, I will disagree but it is not going to cause me any sleepless nights. If they throw out the phrase “under God,” I will approve of that decision as part of my belief that the public sphere should be secular, but you will not find me throwing a big party or dancing in the streets.

What really concerns me is that there are a lot of people for whom this issue is a huge deal, so much so that people who challenge the constitutionality of the pledge are seemingly fearful of even having their names known. That is wrong. People should be able to take any stand they wish on issues such as these without having to fear personal abuse or harm.

POST SCRIPT 1: Antiwar activists go on trial

Four Catholic antiwar activists who already stood trial for their stand against the invasion of Iraq and were cleared of the original charge of criminal mischief, are now, two years later, being charged with by federal authorities on conspiracy charges for the same actions and will be tried again. Leigh Saavedra reports on the case and the extent to which the government will go to silence critics of its war.

POST SCRIPT 2: Phil Donahue socks it to Bill O’Reilly

Phil Donahue takes on Bill O’Reilly and gives a lesson on how to argue with loud bullies.

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